The Reference Desk

We welcome all researchers, veterans, and those who are just starting out. In that spirit, we offer some general sources introducing Congregational and Christian history as well an orientation to some of our key digital resources. We also offer assistance with research-related questions. Contact us at 617-523-0470 extension 102 or email us at

The reference staff is happy to help with any questions, but please keep in mind that we limit staff time to approximately 30 minutes per reference request. If your inquiry requires more then the alloted 30 minutes, we ask that you visit the library or hire an outside researcher. The library is currently open by appointment only and you can read more about it here!


Reading Room Policies

The following Reading Room policies are in place to protect the holdings and provide the best environment for our visitors. Violating any of the below policies can result in removal from the Reading Room. Additional or severe violations may result in being banned from the premises.

The Reading Room is open to visitors five days a week, Monday-Friday, from 9 am to 12 pm and 1 - 4 pm.

When a Visitor Arrives:

  • All visitors should check in with the staff member working at the reference desk in the reading room when they arrive.
  • Computers
    • All visitors are welcome to bring in a laptop or tablet for use in the Reading Room. Several outlets are available under our reading room table
    • The reading room has one desktop computer available for visitor usage. Please note that this computer cannot be used to print anything, but you are welcome to bring a USB stick for transferring documents.
  • Cameras/Cell Phones
    • Visitors are welcome to take photos of our collections with a camera or cell phone, as long as the flash and sound effects are off.
    • Cell phones should be muted or set to vibrate. If you need to take a call, we ask that you step out of the reading room and into the hallway.
  • Research Materials
    • Pencils and loose-leaf paper are welcome in the reading room. The CLA can also provide paper and pencils if needed.
    • Pens and markers of any kind are not allowed.
    • Notebooks and binders of any kind are not allowed.
  • Food and Drink
    • Drinks and snacks can be stored inside the lockers outside of the reading room. Neither can be brought into the reading room.
    • The library is unable to store any outside food or drinks in a fridge or freezer.
  • Personal Scanning Devices
    • No scanners of any kind are allowed in the reading room. All images must be taken by cameras, tablets, or cell phones.
  • Personal Identification
    • For patrons using our Rare Books or any Archival material, a Photo ID is required.
  • Lockers and Personal Belongings
    • Lockers are available for visitors who arrive with bags, backpacks, and laptop sleeves. Any items other than laptops, paper, pencils, cameras and/or cell phones must be placed in lockers upon arrival and can be removed when you take a break or leave. The lockers are locked, and keys are only in possession of the staff.
    • Outside books are not allowed in the reading room and must remain in a bag or stored in the locker. If a visitor wants to use a personal book for comparison, they must ask permission from the staff member first. 
  • Noise Levels
    • Our reading room is an active area and we cannot guarantee a silent studying environment. Staff may converse with one another and other visitors at any time. The reading room also looks out into the Granary Burying Ground, which is an active hub that generates a lot of noise depending on the season and time of day. We suggest bringing headphones or other noise-canceling devices as needed.

Working with Materials:

  • Requesting Material
    • If visitors request material ahead of time, the staff can make those materials available upon their arrival.
    • Material can be requested throughout your visit, but staff have the discretion to reject requests depending on size and current reading room activity.
    • Some of our archival material is in offsite storage and that is noted in our catalog with “Offsite – please email.” These materials take a minimum of 2 days to be recalled, in some cases as much as 5-7 days.
    • Visitors must request new material no later than 11 am in the morning block and 3 pm in the afternoon block.
  • Viewing Material
    • Each visitor is allowed to take one volume, one folder, or one book to their space at a time, swapping them out when they want to view something else.
    • If a visitor wants to have an additional item for comparison, they must first ask the staff on duty for permission.
  • Physical Usage of Materials
    • Some materials might be considerably more fragile than others. Staff will provide the necessary tools, such as book cradles, in such instances. Failure to fully comply with the procedures laid out by the staff may result in the removal of Reading Room privileges.
    • The CLA has facsimile copies of certain material. If the originals are in particularly bad condition, the staff can choose to only allow the facsimile for use.
    • Visitors are required to use CLA-supplied cloth gloves when using photographic material.
  • Microfilm Reader Usage
    • The library has a computer which is for the dedicated use of the Microfilm reader. If multiple visitors require the use of the Microfilm reader, the staff member will come up with a schedule to allow for shared access.
    • A “how-to” guide is with the microfilm machine to help with its use. Images can be saved to the desktop and then transferred via email or a USB drive.
    • The Microfilm computer wipes data each night, so all needed information must be removed before a visitor leaves for the day..
  • Privacy Concerns within Specific Material
    • We strive to remove sensitive material such as Social Security numbers, bank accounts, medical records, or other potentially invasive information. Visitors are not allowed to reproduce these records and should immediately inform staff members if they encounter any.
      • If you are unsure if something counts as a privacy concern, a staff member would be happy to take a look for you.
    • Some of our material will have access restrictions and these will be noted in the catalog. If not noted in the catalog, a staff member will let you know about any restrictions on requested material.
  • Reproduction Services
    • The CLA does not have an accessible photocopier/scanner. Staff can provide scanning or photocopies, but they require at least a day to be completed. Scans can be sent via email or Dropbox, and photocopies can be sent in the mail depending on the circumstances. Pricing and additional details can be found on the “Library Policies” page of our website.


  • Lunch Break
    • The library currently closes fully from 12-1 pm for staff lunches. During that period, all visitors must leave the reading room. Visitors are welcome to leave their set-up as is or use one of the provided lockers. The reading room will be inaccessible to all non-staff during the hour.
  • End-of-Day Procedures
    • All materials must be returned to the staff 10 minutes before the 4 pm closing of the Reading Room.


Exploring Congregational and Christian History

The best historical overview remains John Von Rohr's The Shaping of American Congregationalism, 1620-1957 (Pilgrim Press, 1992), a systematic treatment of theology, polity and worship from the landing of the Pilgrims to the forming of the United Church of Christ in 1957. The other standard is Williston Walker's Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism, first published in 1893 and most recently reissued by Pilgrim Press in 1991.

The seven-volume Living Theological Heritage Series (Pilgrim Press, 1995-2004) is a collection of original documents tracing the history of the Congregational Christian tradition from its first-century roots to the present.  All of the documents are framed by interpretive essays and introductions.

The minutes of the National Council of Congregational Churches, formed in 1871, have been digitized through 1923. These provide diverse information on denominational programs, decisions, personalities, and conflicts.


Research on Individuals

Our obituary database links researchers to basic biographical information on some 29,000 Congregational Christian ministers and missionaries. The list is strongest for the period after the Civil War to the present — denominational record-keeping was not as efficient before then — and includes information from several digital sources:

Congregational Christian Yearbooks

All of the denominational yearbooks, from the mid-nineteenth century onward, are available in digital form. They contain, among other information, membership statistics for individual churches, as well as the names and ordination dates for ministers.

Christian Annuals

Also available digitally are annual reports from regional conferences, lists of churches, and pertinent statistics from the General Convention of the Christian Church.

Canadian Congregational Yearbooks

We have also digitized these annual denominational yearbooks containing church statistics, reports from seminaries and missionary organizations, and obituaries of prominent members, from 1873 through 1923.


Researching Individual Churches

Because Congregational and Christian churches had no central denominational office until the early twentieth century, records of individual congregations can be a challenge to locate. Many have been destroyed or simply lost, a situation the Congregational Library is working to rectify through our Hidden Histories program.

Our Hidden Histories collection contains a growing list of rare and previously inaccessible New England colonial-era church records, and our online catalog includes many individual histories of local churches, towns, and counties. In addition, denominational yearbooks provide data on membership, location, and names of pastors.

In many cases, however, local churches disbanded, federated, or merged, and changed their names accordingly. Researchers trying to locate these records will want to begin by consulting one of the sources below:

An Inventory of the Records of the Particular (Congregational) Churches in Massachusetts, Gathered 1620-1805, by Harold Field Worthley

In the 1980s, for his Harvard doctoral dissertation, former Congregational Library director Harold Worthley visited every Congregational and Unitarian church in Massachusetts that had been organized before 1805. His immensely useful book provides a brief history of each church, as well as lists of the colonial-era records he found, and their locations at the time.

Regional Indexes

Researchers trying to locate records of an old church, or of one no longer in existence, will find this series immensely helpful. Richard H. Taylor's collection provides a well-researched and informative introduction for six different regions of the United States, and a detailed index of mergers, closings, and name changes for every known Congregational Church and post-merger Congregational Christian Church, from the colonial period to the present. Titles include:

The Churches of Christ of the Congregational Way in New England (1989), available in digital form
(We have transcribed Taylor's abbreviation keys for this book for easy reference.)

Southern Congregational Churches (1994)

Congregational Churches of the West (1992)

Plan of Union and Congregational Churches of Christ in the Middle Atlantic States (2005)

Congregational and Plan of Union Churches in the Great Lake States (2009)

Congregational Churches on the Plains (2012)

American Congregationalism's Partner Churches: Canada, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Pacific (2021)

You can purchase all of these volumes through RHT Publishing here. The library has copies of the New England and West editions for sale and you can find out more by contacting us at